The 9-3 Sports Saloon doesn't get a very good rep on these pages. However, I was in the market for my first company car - leased - and I felt that the 9-3 TiD merited a further look, mainly because the lease deals are exceptionally good at the moment. I suspect this is because GM wants to grow SAAB's market share. Certainly there seem to be quite a few on the roads these days.
I will state that the SAAB was not my first choice - that was the Skoda Octavia vRS, but I couldn't reconcile the 36mpg 'thirst' with my driving needs, and the 170bhp TDI model was still to be released at the time I needed to make my choice. Of course, I also checked how much a BMW 320d would be - the clear class leader - but a comparable (SE-spec) model would be £100/month, or nearly 30%, more... the 118bhp 318d SE, more comparable to the 9-3 Linear Sport 120bhp 1.9 TiD, was still £75/month more. Of similar cars, only the 1.9TDi 115bhp Audi A4 SE and Jaguar X-Type 2.0D Classic came close, with the Passat SE 140 TDI and Skoda Superb 2.0TDI Elegance also contenders.
Please note that I didn't drive any of these other cars, so I'm in splendid isolation with my thoughts! I spent the previous 3 years and 60k miles in an old-shape (1999) Honda Accord 2.0 auto - yes, the new Accord 2.2 CTD-i Sport was a real contender, but as it would have been my fourth Honda, I decided to change.
Overall in my short time with the car (but high mileage for that period), I am very, very pleased. The bugbear of 9-3s - rattling interiors and poor bass response from the stereo - do not appear to have affected my 2007 model.
The dash has been slightly redesigned for this model year, losing the computer display in a hooded panel on top of the dash - it has now moved to the instrument panel. There is not a rattle or squeak to be heard. I actually think the interior plastics are OK - not as nice as the 3-series or A4 to be sure, but not unpleasant, and my car exhibits no rough mouldings, not even the column stalks! Even the handbrake is pretty easy to use once you've got used to it.
The specification of the Linear Sport takes some beating for the money - quiet, efficient and intuitive dual-zone climate controls (with much nicer rotary dials this year, instead of the buttons and weak LCD of the earlier version), rear parking sensors, cruise control, trip computer, remote boot release from the keyfob, 16" alloys (with a simple 10-spoke design which is easy to clean), half-leather seats, plus the usual electric windows all round, remote locking, heated electric mirrors, traction control etc.
It's a handsome car, too. I chose black - because you don't pay extra for it - with cream seats. Definitely one of the better-looking mid-range execs. Hopefully the 'designer' of the 2006 9-5 facelift will never get his hands on the 9-3...it's also sensibly-sized, with decent legroom front and rear. The seats are supremely comfortable - right from the start - although the Vector and Aero seats have better lateral location. The rear windows also roll fully-down...a rarity these days.
I also find it excellent to drive. The steering is nicely-weighted and has pretty good feel - much better than the A4's from experience of a pre-facelift model - and the ride is firm, but not jarring. Brakes are reassuringly powerful - hopefully I'll never need the multiple airbags (7 in total, I think!) this car has. The gearbox is a bit notchy with a long lever (and clutch) throw, but otherwise OK. 6th is best left for motorways only - at 60mph the engine is only turning at 1,500rpm.
What of the engine? Well, it's no ball of fire given that it has a mere 120bhp and isn't yet fully run in. However, it has a very quick glow-plug time when starting from cold, and is smooth (for a 4-cylinder direct-injection diesel, anyway) when warmed up - there's a slight vibration through the steering wheel when cold. It does take a quite a time (20min) to get up to operating temperature, although the only driveability issue when cold is a lack of very low-speed torque, i.e. best to slip back to 1st from 2nd if rolling up to a junction at walking pace.
Incidentally prior to making my choice, I took a 24hr test-drive of a TiD 150 (the 16-valve version; the 120 has eight valves) which had been chipped by Hirsch to 180bhp. A real rocket! However, my goal was economy and low CO2, so I chose the 120. Having said that, I heartily recommend the Hirsch upgrade to 150 owners (I saw 44mpg average, with a lot of heavy throttle, over the 200 miles I ran the car), and if I buy my 120 from the lease company after the 3 years are up, I will consider an Abbott Racing chip for more oomph.
Economy? The first tankful got 46mpg, and is increasing from there - the current tankfull should hit the 50mpg barrier, with a high of 53.2mpg recorded on the 'average' trip computer display. This is from standard diesel (I must try BP Ultimate...), and a split between urban and extra-urban of 40/60, observing all speed limits (including 70 on the motorway), but not accelerating like a nun.
On the debit side - storage space isn't great - no dash cubbys apart from the centre console, no pockets on the rear of the front seats, the door pockets are very shallow (as is the glovebox), and no tie-downs in the boot;
Only 4 speakers and a single-disc CD from the standard stereo is a bit cheap (and yes, the sound quality isn't great...but at least you can connect an MP3 player now);
The cruise control release button is fiddly to operate;
It's very hard to go through the radio presets if one is out of range (it will bring up 'PI Seek' and pressing again takes you back to preset 1);
The trip computer isn't a patch on the VW/Audi/Skoda version (for example, it doesn't have an instantaneous MPG readout and only records increments of 0.6-0.9 MPG on the average calculation);
Some of the original launch spec has been deleted through cost-cutting (e.g. seat heaters, central rear headrest, fancy cupholders front and back).
Let's just hope the car stays as good as it has been for the first month...